How to evaluate Atlanta United's 2021 season?

A year that started with aspirations of returning to the juggernaut that took MLS by storm in their first two seasons, before a dramatic coaching change and a battle just to make the postseason, ended on Sunday with a 2-0 defeat to New York City FC in Round One of the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs.

“It’s hard to put into words how I feel right now," Atlanta's Brooks Lennon said after Sunday's loss. "Tough season overall. I thought we fought back from a lot of adversity all year, that’s a success in itself. To come back after being so low in the beginning of the season and not having the points we wanted to have, to make the playoffs is definitely successful for us. This is a franchise that should be in the postseason every single season and pushing for a trophy. So, I think us coming up short of our ultimate goal in lifting a trophy hurts.”

After manager Gonzalo Pineda came in to replace Gabriel Heinze, and before that under interim coach Rob Valentino, Atlanta put together an impressive run of form to finish fifth in the Eastern Conference standings and raise hopes that they could make some real noise in the postseason.

But two goals in five minutes at the start of the second half, scored by Valentin Castellanos and Alexander Callens, were too much for the visitors to overcome in the challenging confines of Yankee Stadium.

"At the end of the day, it was set pieces," said Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan. "You switch off in those moments, you give them half of a second and we got punished. We got punished on two set pieces. We were late to react. Even the play leading up, where George [Bello] makes a good block, and we give the corner away. I wouldn’t say the intensity dropped, but we weren’t as sharp as we needed to be on those plays.”

Those defensive lapses weren't all that went wrong for Atlanta in the Bronx. Star striker Josef Martinez was surprisingly quiet in attack while big midseason addition Luiz Araujo had similarly little impact on the game. According to Guzan, despite the attacking talent at their disposal, there's still plenty of work to do to make it all click.

"I think on paper when you look at our team, we’ve got fantastic players in terms of the ability, the individual brilliance that guys can create in a moment literally out of nothing, can create something fantastic for us," he added. "With that being said, we need to be able to do it more collectively and more consistently. I think in terms of understanding that it may not be Marcelino [Moreno] having to create a moment of brilliance or [Ezequiel] Barco a moment of brilliance or Josef [Martinez] popping up late in a game and finding something for us.

"There needs to be more of an attacking edge consistently. And on both sides of the ball. Defensively and attacking-wise we can certainly get better in all areas of the field. But understanding how to consistently attack and put teams under real pressure home or away.”

But reflecting overall on his first half-season in charge, having joined in August from Seattle, Pineda stressed there's plenty of room for encouragement looking ahead to 2022.

“I would say that the biggest challenge was to change the mentality a little bit," Pineda said of when he took over. "They were a little bit down. Rob [Valentino] did a great job of balancing that mindset, and then I took over and tried to make the final push. I think we were successful with that. For next year, we just need to continue with that. With a full preseason, with everyone fit and ready to go, I think we can improve a lot."